There’s an old saying, “If you don’t plan on doing it right, you’d better plan on doing it again.” As I write, Governor Newsom has just stepped way out ahead of the federal government and ordered sweeping rollbacks of businesses in 30 counties across California, including our own.
In Santa Barbara, not so long ago relatively unscathed by the ravages of COVID, hospitals are now at 50 percent capacity; ICU beds are 56% full; overall confirmed COVID cases have increased by 42% over the past two weeks and the 31st death in our county was just reported. Which means Santa Barbara has now experienced 31 more COVID deaths than the entire nation of Vietnam, a country of 100 million which shares a thousand-mile border with China, the original Coronavirus epicenter. Santa Barbara, by comparison, is 7,000 miles from China but light years behind third-world Vietnam and other countries that mobilized an effective and successful Coronavirus response.
In Santa Barbara, according to recent reports, epidemiologists determined that 57% of recent cases came from person-to-person contact, while 42% were traced to community spread. Community spread is a nice way of saying someone got too close to someone they didn’t know was infected. When the White House said we’d be back in our churches by Easter, maybe that meant Easter ’21. It’s certainly not where we hoped to be by mid-July.
Hope is not a plan.
Because the U.S. federal response has long since missed its opportunity to nip COVID in the bud – as China did, as New Zealand did, as Taiwan did, etc. – our local response, meaning our state and county response, is critical going forward. This means our “down ticket” officials, for example the people we elect as County Supervisors, suddenly have life or death importance.
But at a recent press conference when reporters asked County Board of Supervisors President Gregg Hart if the County had considered enforcing the statewide mask order, Hart demurred, saying, “We will continue to message, explain, urge, and plead with residents and visitors alike to wear masks. But we’re not ultimately going to enforce our way out of this problem,” he said.
The italics are mine. And these question marks and exclamation points are mine as well!!!!??!!
What? I actually had to re-read Hart’s statement twice. We have a statewide, mandatory mask requirement that we know would slow the spread and save lives and we are not prepared to enforce it? When just today CDC director Robert Redfield told the Journal of American Medical Association that “if all Americans wore a mask, rising cases of COVID-19 could be under control within four to eight weeks.
It has become scientifically evident that infected people can and do spread the coronavirus even without showing symptoms. But masks really help, especially medical ones. (There’s much evidence that even cloth masks reduce the risk of spreading.) Our own SB County Public Health Department website states: “Masks help reduce the spread of coronavirus especially when combined with physical distancing and frequent hand washing.” Hart himself said: “the virus is very active in our community now… each of us must continue to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and our neighbors… That means not getting complacent about washing hands, wearing masks, and regularly disinfecting surfaces. It’s our best and, frankly, our only defense.” And still, we’re not enforcing the ordinance?
Here’s the thing that gets me the most. It’s been widely reported and confirmed by medical experts that the number one reason to wear a mask is to protect others. According to the CDC website: “The face cover is meant to protect other people in case you are infected.”
So… we have a state-wide mandate to wear a mask in public when social distancing is not possible. We know wearing a mask is mostly to protect others in case we are walking around, unknowingly, infected. And still, one needs only to drive around town to see hundreds of people, walking in groups, unmasked. People with no way of knowing if they’ve been infected – even if they received a negative result that minute from a test taken 72 hours previously – a normal length of time it takes to get results.
Our mask-wearing mandate is being morphed, in part by our local officials’ unwillingness to enforce it, into a public health choice. Which is, of course, completely ineffective since mask-wearing itself has become, irrationally, a political hot-button and mask refusers rightly understand that there are no consequences for flouting this unenforced “mandate.” Meanwhile, we have other regulations that exist to protect people from the reckless behavior of others, and no one questions them.
Drunk driving, for example. Are we being too hard on these drunk drivers? Should we simply be messaging and urging them to not drive drunk? Should we not be enforcing our way out of this drunk driving problem even though drunk drivers are responsible for one third of all traffic fatalities, and the majority of people who die in accidents caused by drunk drivers are not the drunk drivers themselves?
Of course not. We enforce these laws because as a society we understand that sometimes personal liberties get outweighed by public benefit. Our liberties are our liberties until they infringe on someone else’s liberties. Like when your personal liberty might kill me or my kids. Might kill my husband. Might kill my mom.
Mask wearing is no different. Contrary to Supervisor Hart’s assertion, anything short of widespread and consistent enforcement allows people to interpret this public health mandate as optional. As merely a suggestion – a message, a plea.
Remember a couple short years ago? We learned the value of enforcement.
In January 2018 our County officials urged Montecito residents to evacuate from our homes when the local Office of Emergency Management, and the Supervisors themselves, knew there was a potentially catastrophic debris flow coming. A mere 13% of our community chose to leave. Twenty-three precious lives were lost. In subsequent evacuations the county went beyond messaging. Mandatory evacuations were issued community wide and first responders went door-to-door requesting the dental records of those who refused to leave. But at least those stay-behinds didn’t put others at risk.
Our nation suffers from a pervasive and tragic lack of courageous leadership that seems to trickle down to our local officials who are apparently afraid to tell their constituents the cold hard facts: that until we decide to forgo some personal liberties to protect the lives of others, we are doomed to limp along pathetically and drastically in terms of economic, social, and health outcomes, until some scientist in some nation can successfully develop a vaccination or a cure for this rampant, indiscriminate, juggernaut of a disease.
Today I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Henning Ansorg, Santa Barbara County’s Public Health Officer. I wondered how he feels we are doing in the mask wearing department. Turns out, not good enough. “There are a lot of people not wearing masks,” Ansorg said. “Some are local, but many are visitors. Our tourism industry needs to be more proactive. If I owned a hotel, I would have a mask on every pillow for every guest that arrives instead of a chocolate chip cookie. With a note that says: If you are visiting from out of the area, please play by the rules. Please wear a mask. This is our community and this is how we protect each other.”
Dr. Ansorg also stressed the need for a strong PR campaign. “We have to sell the idea that it’s the sexy or responsible thing to wear a mask. Social pressure goes a long way,” Ansorg said.
So I am urging, messaging, pleading, and in fact social pressuring our leaders to rise to this unprecedented occasion and do the right thing. To unequivocally enforce the state rules that were put in place to keep us safe and to help us move towards getting our normal lives back. You may not win a popularity contest by doing so, but your willingness to lose a vote or two might just enable you to save a life. Or two. Or thirty-one.
But regardless of whether or not our local officials courageously lead us through this, let’s commit to courageously leading ourselves through this. Let’s not let some short-term resistance to perfunctory modifications in behavior, in the name of some rigid interpretation of liberty, prolong this disaster, and potentially lead to actual long-term consequences for real liberty.